To read Hamnet – winner of the Women’s Prize for Fiction, 2020 – is to learn the language of grief. It is to comprehend an insistent syntax, a repetitive rhythm that turns sentences into elegies. The minutest detail – the creaking of beams, lines of apples on shelves, skins stretched out in a glove workshop – has a specific texture, a shape, a smell that is examined to create a genealogy of remembrance.

The novel, Maggie O’Farrell’s eighth, is set in the late sixteenth century and is a fictive retelling of the death of Hamnet, the eleven-year-old son of William Shakespeare and his wife Anne Hathaway, probably to the bubonic plague, in 1596. The playwright is never named, although he is referred to as “the Latin tutor” or “this husband of hers” or “their father”. Anne is called Agnes, which, O’Farrell explains in her Author’s Note, is the name mentioned in the will of her father, Richard Hathaway.

The specificities of history aside, Hamnet, published in 2020, is a novel about the loss of a child, and individual trajectories of mourning – a mother’s tenacious grip over all that reminds her of Hamnet, a father’s moving away from Stratford-upon-Avon, where the boy has died in their home on Henley Street, to London, to the stunning chimera of the playhouse. While the father finds coherence (and maybe even solace) in the writing and performing of Hamlet, four years later, it is the mother’s trajectory – a long and lonesome meander into the the very heart of bereavement – that O’Farrell charts with compelling emotional acuity.

She also traces, with a cartographer’s locational precision, the journey of a flea that attaches itself to the red scarf tied around the neck of the cabin boy of a ship docked at Alexandria. It will travel across the Mediterranean, multiplying, moving from host to host, till it finally reaches and infects Hamnet’s twin sister, Judith.

Sensual rebel

The first section of Hamnet has alternating chapters that oscillate between the summer of 1596, when Judith lies on a pallet, sick with “the pestilence”, and fifteen years or so earlier to a time when a Latin tutor first catches sight of a yeoman’s daughter, whom he mistakenly believes is a young man. “…[H]e moves out of the trees with a brand of masculine insouciance or entitlement, covering the ground with booted strides. There is some kind of bird on his outstretched fist: chestnut-brown with a creamy white breast, its wings spotted with black.”

This early sighting of Agnes, which perhaps alludes to the Shakespearean trope of androgynous characters who cross-dress, heralds a tantalising female protagonist. O’Farrell’s Agnes is a vivid, somewhat bewitching character, with instinctual knowledge and a torrential inner life. She is a creature of the forest, a gatherer of herbs and maker of potions. She is a falconer, with a kestrel that she lets out to fly. There are rumours that she is the daughter of a wood-dwelling dead witch.

She is the stepdaughter of Joan, her father’s second wife (although the village folk try to convince her that Joan is her only real mother). Joan is inattentive and unkind, and “Agnes must live with a sense of herself as second-tier, deficient in some way, unwanted.”

But Agnes is also sensual; she is a rebel. When she marries the Latin tutor, she is with child. This is the outcome of a frisky escapade with the tutor in the apple storeroom, which makes the apples jolt and turn on their heads, and alerts the kestrel to a repetitive noise. Her observations are often spiked with humour. She discovers the hierarchical structure of the house on Henley Street, and surmises,“…her position, as new daughter-in-law, to be ambiguous, somewhere between apprentice and hen.”

Her sense of smell is an encyclopaedia of psychogenic wisdom. The year her first daughter, Susanna, turns one, she notices an unfamiliar smell, one of slow decay. She finds its source – her husband. It emanates from him, informing her of his disgruntlement with life within the confines of domesticity and routine. She knows he must leave Stratford, the familiar comfort of home and hearth, the sudden violence and constant scorn of his glove-maker father, John, to fully realise his talents.

The assault of grief

The second section of Hamnet commences with Agnes sitting by the body of her dead son. The room has been cleaned; lavender water has been sprinkled around it. Hamnet’s body lies waiting to be prepared for burial. The women who have gathered in the room communicate the urgency of the burial, for the town has decreed that those who perish of the pestilence must be buried within a day. The scene, and the mention of the decree are inadvertently, and hauntingly, illustrative of the current age of pandemics.

When Agnes washes Hamnet’s body, a ritual she insists upon performing alone, she does so with the gentle care of a mother bathing an infant: “She wets her hands in the water and then draws her fingers through his hair; she finds flecks of lint, a teasel, a leaf from a plum tree. These, she lays aside, on a plate: flotsam from her boy. She combs with her fingers until the hair is clean. May I, she asks him, take a lock from you? Would you mind?”

Agnes clings to her grief with characteristic wilfulness, for to let it go, or to allow herself a smaller dose, like a tincture of mild potency, would be an act of sacrilege. O’Farrell’s fictive wife of the Latin tutor is hardly the Anne Hathaway who inhabits a few lines in biographical essays about the legendary playwright: a twenty-six-year-old pregnant peasant girl who marries eighteen-year-old William Shakespeare in 1582. In Hamnet, she is absolved of every assumption that she is manipulative, or worse, unremarkable.

Left out of history

Among the books that O’Farrell read for a plausible reimagining of Agnes, there is a mention of Germaine Greer’s 2007 exposition, Shakespeare’s Wife. Greer’s vehement and often scholarly postulations challenge the notion that Anne had ensnared young Will into marriage: “If Will Shakespeare had been a young man with prospects there might have been some point in entrapping him, but he wasn’t.” She admonishes the “Shakespeare wallahs” – biographers, editors, scholars – for “…creating a Bard in their own likeness, that is to say, incapable of relating to women, and have then vilified the one woman who remained true to him all his life, in order to exonerate him.”

That women, and in particular Elizabethan women, have been obliterated from history, even though they occupy positions of eminence in the fiction and poetry of the age, is a paradox that Virginia Woolf presents in her 1929 extended essay, A Room of One’s Own. Woolf embarks upon an enquiry into the lives of Elizabethan women, by referring to GM Trevelyan’s History of England, published in 1926. She looks up “women, position of” in the index, to discover that “the daughter who refused to marry the gentleman of her parents’ choice was liable to be locked up, beaten, and flung about the room, without any shock being inflicted on public opinion.”

Woolf considers this bit of information, before mentioning Shakespeare’s female characters – Cleopatra, Lady Macbeth, Rosalind – wilful women, singular for their beauty and cunning, to delineate history’s error: “She pervades poetry from cover to cover; she is all but absent from history.” Incensed by this omission, Woolf continues: “Some of the most inspired words, some of the most profound thoughts in literature fall from her lips; in real life she could hardly read, could scarcely spell, and was the property of her husband.”

It is history’s omissions, and the historian’s presumptions that O’Farrell sets out, if not to rectify, then at least to fill with a reinvented Agnes – one as individualistic as a Shakespearean heroine. Regardless of the accolades that come its way, the book will forever offer a rare empathy, and the beauty of language, to those whose grief has left them bereft of everything, including words.

Hamnet, Maggie O’Farrell, Tinder Press.